I did not want to distinguish Stratford-upon-Avon from the rest of Warwickshire and yet it remains on my slate as something very apart from my primary subject which is castles and early-medieval architecture. Aside from London, the old town of Stratford is the most unpretentiously famous town in England and the visitors number in the millions every year. Situated on the west bank of the River Avon it dates back to at least Roman times. Perhaps it is Shakespeare’s strong influence upon everything in this ancient Tudor market town that makes a person feel that drama and people are the principle focus- rather than architecture. Nevertheless, if I left Stratford out of my foray through Warwickshire it would truly be a travesty. After all, people have been flocking to his old hometown since 1616- the year he died. In order to do the town justice I’ll start with the Tudor architecture which prevails. So, without any further ado…
There’s no better house to start with than Shakespeare’s birthplace which is the most famous historical structure inside the town. It is situated on Henley Street a short distance from the statue of a Jester on an island in the middle of a roundabout. When you take the tour you will be greeted with authentic costumed guides and rooms filled with so many artifacts and furnishings (which have been authenticated- if not actually authentic) that you’ll get a true sense of stepping back in time and experiencing this house the very same way of Shakespeare and his family. There’s a beauty in that alone which has made this and several other Shakespeare houses of the group, most within walking distance, visitation spots dripping with truly exciting history especially if you know a few details about Shakespeare’s life. If you stay for a week you could become an expert !
The first important aspect of visiting his birthplace is realizing that the house was nearly completely reconstructed in the 19th century but totally reactualized. It may have newer materials, in other words, but it is absolutely the same- color for color and wood for wood- as the original building including the exact spot where it stood. Pilgrimages to the room where he was born will impart some famous visitors autographs etched on a window- such as that of Sir Walter Scott- so quite a lot was saved and retained when the house was purchased by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1847, including an entire floor and his father’s glove workshop. As a regional historic entity, the Trust runs and controls several edifices connected to the Shakespeare family and conduct tours in each- all Tudor homes. These include Mary Arden’s Farm (she was Shakespeare’s Mom), Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (she was his wife), Hall’s Croft (his physician son-in-law, John Hall), Nash’s House ( Thomas Nash, Shakespeare’s grandson-in-law) and New Place which was the final home of William himself after he returned to his hometown to retire. The house is gone but beautiful gardens now grace the spot right next to Nash’s House.
After you tour Shakespeare’s birthplace and check out the Centre for the exhibition on Shakespeare’s life you’ll want to tour the above mentioned homes and a few other historic places in the immediate area. If you walk back toward High Street you’ll see The Trading Post store on the corner which was once a prison in the 15th century referred to as The Cage. Later, converted into a house, Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith lived there for a time. If you continue walking down High Street you’ll see a house with strange gargoyle-like wood carvings with the year 1596 inscribed. This is Harvard House which is a late 16th century timber-frame belonging to Harvard University. This childhood home of Katherine Rogers can be toured and should be intrinsically interesting to Americans in particular because her son, John Harvard, was the founder of our Harvard University. You may find the family artifacts fascinating.
Directly across the street from the Old Bank on Ely and Chapel, a bit further down the road you’ll see the old Town Hall which was built in 1767. Besides the eclectic architecture and a statue of Shakespeare (donated by David Garrick in the mid 18th century) you find 18th century graffiti scratched on the front of the edifice of which one says, “God Save the King” who at the time of the writing was George III. It was built during his reign and replaced an old market place for guns and ammo during the second Civil War and was subsequently blown up. Whether it was by accident or on purpose is anyone’s guess.
As you walk further down Chapel Street, toward Church Street you’ll pass what looks like a toy store called Ragdoll. This is, in fact, the bank where the Tellytubbies and other characters from Tots TV live. The mentioned programs are apparently made at undisclosed locations in and around Stratford. Good to know, huh ? The Shakespeare Hotel is across the street from Ragdoll and as you continue walking you’ll see a three-storied black and white which is Nash’s House and can be toured as a museum of local history and contains exquisite furnishings. In its shadow, the remaining foundations and walkways of the gardens where Shakespeare’s final home once stood, New Place, are a lovely tribute with Elizabethan herb and knot gardens amongst the petals and English finery of Williams Great Garden. On the corner of Church Street and Chapel Lane the Guild Chapel has a Last Judgement painting on the chancel wall. Both the building and painting are purported to be late 15th century. Only a bit further down the road his old public school, Edward VI Grammar School still stands and is situated above the former Guildhall.
If you turn left into Old Town you’ll be led to Hall’s Croft, a Tudor with Jacobean additions, where Susanna, William’s eldest daughter took care of her family and husband, a 17th century physician. On this tour you’ll view 16th and 17th century surgical tools and an exhibition on medicine during William’s time. You’ll find the walled garden with its multitude of trees, shrubs and ancient fixtures an absolute delight. John Hall also raised the herbs and plants he used for his medicines and his special herb garden is behind the house. As you continue past the house, later, if you cross Southern Lane and follow the road where it veers off to the right you’ll find Holy Trinity Church where you’ll find Shakespeare’s final resting place. Interestingly, the church charges admission to see his gravesite which is several yards underneath the church. It is well worth the price to see the beautiful features of the church and a bust of Shakespeare which his widow Anne said was his exact likeness.
From the Southern Lane you can take a walk alongside the tree-lined bank of the Avon to reach Bancroft Gardens near the Clopton Bridge. On the wall by the footpath, you’ll find a sign about John Shakespeare and a house he had there. On the right hand side of the road you can see the curve of the Swan Theatre, a theatre in the round, built upon ruins of the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre which burnt down in 1926. You’ll also see the Royal Shakespeare Theatre which was opened in 1932 and designed by Elizabeth Scott. You can cross the road just before the Swan Theatre and walk along the river past the Swan Theatre and the terrace side of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with swans and ducks keeping you company. Keeping to the pavement past the back of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, you will come to the Bancroft Gardens. On your right you will see a fountain with swans on the top which was switched on by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996 to celebrate Stratford’s 800th anniversary. Walk to the end of the road, and the water on the right hand side is not the river but the canal basin. One hundred years ago, as Stratford was an inland port, all the canals were used for carrying heavy industrial loads. Now used for holidays, the narrow boats moor in the basin for an overnight stop or for a few days. The causeway dates from the 15th century and is a part of the multi-arched masonry bridge that spans across the River Avon. Its origin goes back to Saxon times but much of what remains was built in 1480 by Hugh Clopton, who later became Lord Mayor of London. A timber bridge dated back to 1318 but is, of course, long gone. Two of the arches were rebuilt in 1524 and the entire causeway was repaired in 1588 after a bad flood. Oliver Cromwell took a swipe at it in 1642 and managed to destroy one arch. Late in the 17th century the town raised money to heighten the parapets which had been damaged through wear and tear. Further restoration and a ten-sided toll house tower were added in the 19th century with final work done by adding a cast iron footbridge on the north side as late as 1827.
To tour Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery and Mary Arden’s House which also has the Shakespeare Countryside Museum at Wilmcote you might want to take a specialized tour for your ease and to get the best deal for your tour dollars. You can call ahead to 01789 293455 for Mary Arden’s or 01789 292100 for Anne Hathaway’s or e-mail info to find out full information. The first mentioned is possibly the only thatched roof cottage left in the area and you’ll love seeing all the family items that remain along with the beautifully restored and kept up grounds and gardens. The former is a still working farm with authentically dressed interpreters carrying out all the real life activities. Nature trails and animal keeps will entrance your whole family. A bit further afield the Butterfly Farm will enchant your wee folk quite a bit.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust